I have been blessed in recent weeks and months to see some very spiritual behavior and attitudes in the lives of some of our church members. I have seen people who a few years ago were like a fragile, young plant needing lots of spiritual investment, now exhibiting the strength and stability of a mighty tree. In a recent post I showed a Biblical pattern for investing in people. The Apostle Paul went to the city of Thessalonica on his second missionary journey and invested himself in the people there. The Bible says he imparted not the gospel of God only, but also his own soul. I think it appropriate when considering "investment" to also take a moment to consider "the return". In Paul's first letter to the Thessalonians, he talked about his investment in them. In his second letter, he talked about the return on his investment. Notice what he said to them in II Thessalonians 1:3-4:
"We are bound to thank God always for you, brethren, as it is meet, because that your faith groweth exceedingly, and the charity of every one of you all toward each other aboundeth; So that we ourselves glory in you in the churches of God for your patience and faith in all your persecutions and tribulations that ye endure:"
Paul was rejoicing and could not help but thank God for these precious people because of some things that he saw happening in their lives. When I read these two verses recently, I immediately thought, "Wow...that is exactly what I am seeing in some of our people!" Let us examine these three indicators of spiritual maturity that Paul raised.
1. They were growing in faith.
So often people have enough faith to call upon the Lord to save them, but that is as far as their faith takes them. God intends for us to be saved by faith and then to live the rest of our life by faith. And the faith of the believer should not stay the same as when he got saved. He should be growing in his faith. The Thessalonian believers' faith grew exceedingly! That means they were believing God more and more, and they were acting on His Word more and more.
A few weeks ago one of the good ladies in our church gave a very challenging testimony. She said that she was praying recently in her home, and some of the neighbor kids saw her. This may sound odd to an American, but here in Cambodia the homes are so tiny and also are so crammed together that there really is very little privacy. Also, because of the heat and humidity, doors and windows are always open. In this context it is very easy to see how the children who live around her house would see her praying. She prays daily and on this particular day she had been praying for a long while. A couple of the children said to her, "Why do you pray so much?" She answered, "Because many of you children in the neighborhood still are not saved."
Her faith has grown exceedingly! She isn't just content to be saved. She actually believes what she read in the Bible, that God is "not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance." (II Peter 3:9) She is a prayer warrior for the lost because of her great faith in God.
2. They were abounding in love.
Jesus himself said, "By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another." (John 13:35) Years ago the mother of a teen girl in our church died. Our church people comforted and helped and loved and served their family to the best of their ability. Later one of the out-of-town relatives who had come for the funeral told the teen girl, "It doesn't seem like your dad has any friends, but you sure have a bunch of good friends." People do notice when Christians love and care for each other!
There is a simplistic beauty in the wording of Paul's commendation of the church at Thessalonica. He said, "...the charity of every one of you all toward each other aboundeth". When a church is apathetic towards their fellow believers, that is a mark of carnality and selfishness. But when a church is abounding in charity towards one another, that is a mark of maturity. Nearly a year ago, one of our ladies invited a neighbor to come to church. The new woman was an AIDS patient who appeared to be in the latter stages of the disease. A few weeks after she began to come to church, the woman trusted Christ as Savior, and it has been one of the joys of my life to see the love and care that our church has showed to this lady and her adopted daughter. They have given of their money, their time, and their energy to a person who could give them nothing in return. At one point when the woman was still living on her own, we began to visit her every single day to take food, check on her, and simply encourage her. Oftentimes we would have numerous days lined up in advance with a different person going each day, just because so many people wanted to help. Some were unemployed people who could go just about anytime. Others had jobs but asked if they could go on their lunch break or when they got off work. There were others still who lived kind of far, but would come to church a couple of hours early for the express purpose of going to see our sister in the Lord. A few weeks ago when the woman finally succumbed to her illness and went to Heaven, it seemed as if this chapter of our church's life had come to a close. The woman's daughter was outside of the city in a Christian orphanage and the woman herself was safely home. But in one final loving act of charity (and by that word, I don't mean the "pity the poor" kind of charity that has become the modern-day usage of the word - I mean biblical charity, which is simply "love") our people filled a box with Christmas gifts and encouraging notes for the daughter and we delivered it to her at the orphanage.
I could not think of a better way to describe this situation than to simply say that the charity of each of our people towards one another is abounding.
3. They were patient in tribulations.
The final thing for which Paul commended the church at Thessalonica was for their patience, faith, and endurance in trials and hardships. This truly is one of the marks of spiritual maturity, because so many people "bail out" when the going gets tough. I know that in the historical context this verse is primarily talking about persecution and tribulation endured for the cause of Christ; however, I do believe a person's ability to endure any trial is indicative of spiritual maturity.
Crime is definitely a big problem in Cambodia. Thefts, muggings, rapes, and murders are all a part of everyday life. The best precaution one may take is to not go out past 8 or 9 at night, but bad things do happen at all hours of the day. In the last couple of years, our church members have been accosted by thieves on at least 4 occasions while coming or going to our Sunday evening service. Three of those times were within a couple of blocks of the church.
On Sunday night, December 26th, I got a call that one of our young ladies had been in a moto accident on her way home from church. But this wasn't an "accident". Two men on another moto had ripped the necklace from her neck while driving down the road. Purse and jewelry snatching at high speeds is a popular tactic of thieves here, and it oftentimes leads to a wreck as it did in this case. So in a matter of seconds this sweet, Christian young lady had wrecked her moto badly, had cuts and scrapes all over, and had been robbed of a valuable necklace. Definitely a trial! The following Thursday night she was there for our mid-week Bible study, and her face (I kid you not) was literally glowing! We talked for a few minutes after the Bible study, and her testimony thrilled me as a pastor and humbled me as a Christian. I asked her about her injuries, and she said, "I'm fine. All my cuts and scrapes are healing up nicely." I asked about her moto, and she shrugged, "I don't know yet if it's fixable...but right now a friend is picking me up for work." Then she said, "I don't know how everything is going to work out, but I am actually kind of glad this happened. I feel like this accident has brought me so much closer to God! In recent months I really have not been seeking God with all my heart, and the accident turned me back towards Him."
The beauty of investing in people is that eventually some of them will begin to invest in you in return. I have no doubt that some of the young believers in our church are better Christians than me. Their faith is strong, their love is abundant, and their spirit of endurance is remarkable. I praise God for the work he has done and is doing in both them and me.
"For this cause also thank we God without ceasing, because, when ye received the word of God which ye heard of us, ye received it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God, which effectually worketh also in you that believe."
(I Thessalonians 2:13)